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Traveling in a Small RV

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Travel is a key part of retirement for many. And traveling in a small RV can be a fun, flexible, and economical solution. Our Class B camper van has been fundamental to our retirement lifestyle. We’ve spent hundreds of nights in it, and can’t imagine retired life without our small RV.

In a series of previous posts, I’ve explained how to evaluate, buy, and live efficiently in a small RV. In this post I’ll offer some tips from our experience traveling in a small RV. The details are fresh in my mind from our just-completed 4-week summer road trip.

If you aren’t into RVs, stay tuned: In my next post, I’ll discuss my views on the recent stock market volatility and what, if anything, we should all do about it!

Planning

A successful RV trip requires the right mix of pre-planning and laissez-faire. The great advantage of an RV is that you can sleep just about anywhere, anytime. So why lock yourself into a rigid travel schedule that doesn’t allow for savoring new discoveries on the road, or for moving along should the crowds or weather not be to your liking?

That said, it is sometimes necessary to make reservations ahead for high-use areas. For our recent trip, which included stops in some of the most popular national parks — Yosemite and Glacier — I reserved campsites through the lottery system last March. But I was able to leave much of the rest of the trip unscheduled. Ironically, those premium campsites in the national parks were mostly forgettable. The highlights of our trip occurred elsewhere, at campsites and campgrounds that we discovered en route, serendipitously. So, if you must make reservations, make them few and far between, to avoid cramping your style.

Though I don’t like to lock in our schedule with reservations, I do invest plenty of time in preparing our RV and associated gear for the trip. Nobody wants a vacation spoiled with a breakdown or forgotten item once on the road. So I prepare carefully for each journey. This starts with an extensive 3-page checklist that I’ve developed over the years, and update with each trip. It covers everything from items to pack to systems to check, from maintenance tasks to mothballing the house while we’re away. Important tasks on the RV include, among many others, checking tire pressure and wear, testing and packing extra batteries, testing smoke and CO detectors, checking water system pressure, and inspecting the underbody of our rig.

Accommodations

Most of our extended trips involve a mixture of camping out, staying with friends or relatives, and using commercial lodging — hotels or short-term rentals. As mentioned, we prefer not to make arrangements in advance, but that could be hard on friends and family who must plan their lives. Generally, we’re able to give them an approximate date and time of arrival by email. Then we’ll call from the road to confirm. That seems to be enough certainty for most of our hosts.

When staying with others, more often than not, we’ll sleep in our van in the driveway, rather than using a guest room. The advantages are numerous: no unpacking/repacking for us, no dirty linens for our hosts, and more space for everyone. It’s kind of like being “neighbors” for a few nights. The formula works well for all concerned.

On our longest trips, we’ll often break up the camping nights with a more luxurious night or two of commercial lodging. We’ve grown to love our comfortable van so much that it’s rare we’d choose a generic hotel, even a nice one, over camping. Frankly, they just aren’t as comfortable. Rather, we’ll treat ourselves to an AirBnB or VRBO rental, for a homier feeling in an appealing setting. This also gives us the opportunity to take full-size showers, do laundry, stretch out on the floor, and organize a bit, before another stint of camping.

Camping

The point of RVing is to camp, right? Yet, we rarely spend much time in campgrounds. Some folks like to set up their rig and park for a week. That’s fine, but it just isn’t us. We typically arrive late in the day, cook and sleep, then leave mid-morning for another adventure. Even if we intend to spend the night in the same campground, our small 20-ft. van will be our daytime transportation. We don’t tow another vehicle. So that means we’re usually packing up — a 10-minute task — and heading out during the day.

We’ve stayed in every imaginable kind of campground over the years. From high-end, landscaped places with hotel-like amenities, to low-budget operations that aren’t much more than a gravel parking spot and an electrical socket. Sometimes we stay in local campgrounds, and sometimes in the national chains. KOAs are a benchmark, of sorts. They tend to be predictably adequate, with acceptable facilities. Some are beautifully situated. Most are just functional. Prices, though, tend not to be a bargain. For deals you generally must go to the smaller businesses or parks.

Truthfully, since we don’t spend much of our time actually hanging out in campgrounds, we aren’t too particular. We appreciate clean, roomy showers, but those are hard to identify in advance. The most important thing to us is quiet. That’s one reason to avoid KOA and other family-oriented campgrounds, though noise is rarely a problem in the evenings. We do make it a rule to avoid tent campgrounds and the tent sections of regular campgrounds. Those folks tend to like building fires and staying up all night to party or talk. Fortunately, our van has excellent noise reduction with the windows closed, and I’ve made it through a rare raucous night with the help of foam ear plugs.

Setting up and breaking camp can be more or less elaborate, depending on the size of your RV, and your traveling plans. Since all RVs are self-contained, you can always avoid hooking up if you are on a tight schedule. And we frequently are. Sometimes we connect electricity, if we need to run air conditioning or recharge electronic devices. We rarely, if ever, connect water or sewer. Rather we fill and dump in a separate operation only when needed.

Most camp sites are level enough that we can operate comfortably without special measures. But a pronounced tilt can make cooking, showering, and sleeping harder. So, if the angle is extreme, we’ll use our handy Lynx Levelers.

Regrettably, camping in most official campgrounds is no longer cheap. It is rare to find spots under $30. Very rare to find them under $20. Much more common these days are prices in the $40 range. And, the prime vacation locations can go higher in season. That’s why we “boondock” whenever possible.

Boondocking

“Boondocking” is RV slang for camping outside a designated camp site, without utility hookups. Modern RVs with batteries and holding tanks are designed to handle this mode seamlessly. Our small rig can easily go several days without hookups. Bigger rigs can go much longer.

Why go through the hassle of locating, registering, and paying for a campsite — which, as I’ve mentioned, can run close to the price of a hotel room — when all you need is a good night’s sleep in your own mobile bedroom? When we are traveling from point A to point B and just need to spend a night, and many other times as well, we simply boondock. Done intelligently, this is as quiet and safe as a campground, but far quicker and cheaper.

If it’s very hot and we need to run air conditioning (which requires shore AC power in most small rigs), or if we find an attractive campground in a good location, then we’ll forego boondocking. Otherwise it’s our preferred mode of overnighting.

Unfortunately, some communities don’t allow boondocking. Presumably they are trying to control homelessness and vagrancy. But if you are only staying overnight, and are discrete in a well-kept vehicle, it’s usually not a problem. The authorities may disagree, but I don’t personally see an ethical dimension to sleeping in your own vehicle in a commercial area, as long as you don’t make a nuisance of yourself.

Of course, I prefer to boondock where it’s officially allowed, to avoid the possibility of being forced to move in the middle of the night. Leading the list is WalMart: “…we do permit RV parking on our store parking lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV.”

When possible, we’ll call ahead to a WalMart on our route to make sure boondocking is allowed. Usually it is. Other businesses that generally allow boondocking are Flying J and Cracker Barrel, though, again, calling ahead is advised if you want to eliminate any possibility of being asked to move.

Many truck stops allow the practice too. Though some, surprisingly, post against it, probably for insurance reasons, and probably don’t enforce it. Truck stops can be busy and noisy, but our van generally blocks out the racket. Highway rest areas are my least favorite place to boondock: I don’t care for the safety and noise implications of having traffic coming and going all night. We rarely, if ever, spend the night in rest areas.

Regardless of where you boondock, it’s good practice to be discrete: arrive late, leave early, stay in your rig, keep curtains drawn, be quiet. The vast majority of authorities and other human beings have no interest whatsoever in disturbing an RV quietly parked out of the way for an evening.

As for any type of camping, the key to a good night’s sleep is site selection. I’m extremely picky when we are boondocking. I prefer to overnight at higher elevations, in less-urban areas that will be cooler and quieter, when possible. But overly remote locations are not good either. For safety, I prefer to have some other people in the vicinity. Parking lots for 24-hour businesses like WalMart are a natural. But we’ll locate away from the traffic and associated noise, at the periphery of the lot. I’ll choose a level spot near, but not directly under, lighting, and next to a parking island of some type, to reduce the opportunity for commotion nearby during the night. Tip: Don’t park near shopping cart collection points: These are often cleared by the early morning shift!

We have boondocked for hundreds of nights of free, sound sleep. It works.

Eating

I’ve written about cooking in our small RV in a previous post. We eat well on the road. Sometimes we’ll have an early dinner to break up the day, then continue driving. But often dinners are later than usual, a casualty of filling our days with travel and outdoor activities.

We don’t force ourselves to fix every meal in our RV kitchen. We make liberal use of leftovers from dining out, plus deli and bakery items, and fresh produce purchased along the way. On our recent trip, we ate out relatively infrequently. But we made a number of mid-day stops at interesting cafes and bakeries to fill our stomachs and the refrigerator.

All RVs have pressurized water systems that work almost like home. But we don’t take drinking water from ours. Rather, we use it only for cleaning tasks, and keep a half-dozen gallon jugs of filtered water for drinking and cooking. This provides several advantages: We don’t worry about keeping the RV water system perfectly sanitized or filtering each water source we put into it. And it gives us more potable water capacity, extending our time without hookups.

Driving

The point of RVing for us is both to enjoy the camping, and to go somewhere. That requires driving, sometimes lots of it. On our recent trip we covered more than 4,000 miles in four weeks. So if driving your rig isn’t reasonably safe and comfortable, you simply won’t enjoy your trip as much.

Before starting the engine, we always inspect both the interior and exterior of our camper. We make sure everything is stowed, secured, and closed up for travel. There are a lot of items to remember, a bevy of potential disasters, small to large — from a glass of water sitting on the counter, to an open window, to a utility hookup still attached. Until the process becomes second nature, a checklist may be advisable.

Though statistics are hard to come by, RVs may actually be safer to travel in than other vehicles. Insurance rates are reasonable. RVs are bigger and heavier, and easy for other drivers to spot. And I suspect the admittedly sluggish handling of these big rigs encourages their owners to slow down and use extra care. RVers tend to be older, and probably more cautious on average.

We generally drive 5-10 mph under the speed limit, and stop more often than we do traveling in our everyday car. We’re also more likely to use a low gear going downhill, more likely to pull over to let traffic pass, more likely to plot our route through cities carefully, and more likely to take rest breaks when traveling highways. It all adds up to a relatively safe traveling experience, as long as common sense is employed. Our most serious incident has been hitting a deer while traveling too late at night.

Parking an RV safely is another matter. This is clearly more difficult than with a smaller vehicle. Take your time, check all your mirrors frequently, get up and out of the vehicle if necessary, and use a spotter whenever there is any doubt. Our worst parking incident was driving off an asphalt pad onto soft ground and getting stuck. Be sure to stay on pavement with your heavy rig when the ground is wet!

The key to an enjoyable vacation in a small RV is pacing yourself. Don’t try to cover too many miles in a day. On our last trip, we flirted with too much distance and nearly wore ourselves out, before deciding to modify our itinerary for less driving. A reasonable traveling pace for us seems to be about twice the driving hours that Google or MapQuest predicts. That allows for our slower speed and more frequent stops. So, two hundred miles is a reasonable, but full, day. Four hundred miles is a long and tiring day. Any more than that would be drudgery, not a “vacation.”

There is much to learn about operating a small RV. After all, it’s a house on wheels. But, if you do your homework and go prepared, traveling in a small RV can be one of the very best ways to see the world!